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Movie Analysis: Oklahoma! (1955)

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” This line begins one of the greatest movies ever made, Oklahoma! (1955). Its original format was an ambitious and bold Broadway musical—itself an adaptation of a play by an Oklahoman playwright named Lynn Riggs—which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted with Viennese-born director Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons), who also directed High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953).

This musical lyric unspools a simple and circular melody rejoicing in the promise of a new day sung by a character who’s an American cowboy. He rides alone on the prairie, so he sings as a hymn to himself. He goes by the name Curly (Gordon MacRae), wears a bright red shirt and rides on top of his horse with ease, rhythm and total control as he sings in a low, booming and soulful affirmation: “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day/I’ve got a beautiful feeling/Ev’rything’s going my way.”

It’s a stunning moment in cinema, letting the audience see man in an undaunted musical expression of supreme self-confidence.

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Curly’s accent is as flat as the Midwest’s, as clipped as the mountain states’ and as relaxed as the South’s with the vocabulary of the West and Oklahoma! is centrally about Curly making life go his way. But Oklahoma! is also about a period of time when it felt like the world could go America’s way; the way of individualism, capitalism and a robust, greedy and selfish pursuit of happiness here on earth.

I’ve previously seen Oklahoma!—which screened before Thanksgiving in 35mm at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum of the American West and introduced by the Autry’s assistant curator of Western history Josh Garrett-Davis—on television, DVD and the silver screen and I always find new aspects in its artistry. This time, I noticed that the film, written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is consciously liberal and decidedly anti-traditionalist. Oklahoma! is liberated about sex and filled with optimism for the future, not nostalgia for the past.

Curly looks eagerly, greedily, toward his future. The handsome cowboy takes no liberties and treats the pretty young lady he desires (Shirley Jones as Laurey in her movie debut) as an equal. Like Gregory Peck in The Big Country, he’s playful with Laurey, not domineering, and he respects her decisions when she makes up her mind, even when he knows she’s wrong. Curly’s accustomed not entitled to attention; when wise and frisky old Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood in an outstanding performance) flirts, he takes it in stride.

But then Curly is an enlightened man. At mid-point in Oklahoma!, Curly notices a picture of a naked woman. He gets closer to inspect it. He gives the picture a good look. He thinks about it, then comments on it. He’s neither put off nor overly interested. He notices but he doesn’t drool or put on airs to impress others and he certainly doesn’t dismiss it. The picture’s another fact to assimilate in modern life and Curly’s curious. He’s neither hyper-masculine nor emasculated. Indeed, Curly doesn’t mind if Laurey sees him express emotion—whether anger or joy—as he knows his own worth.

Knowing himself figures into Curly’s conflict with the story’s villain, Aunt Eller’s hired hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger, Doctor Zhivago), competing for Laurey’s attention. MacRae’s performance is underappreciated, especially in their smokehouse scenes as Curly mocks Jud’s misanthropy, displaying subtle humor, bravery and intelligence as he measures Jud’s character in one of Oklahoma!‘s most disturbing scenes as unwashed Jud, who lives in a moist underbelly of primitivism, essentially chooses to come out for the death premise (this turns out to be a flaw in Curly’s character as he lets Laurey ride with Jud knowing that Jud’s a threat).

Laurey, too, is an enlightened woman. Though the character is incessantly critiqued for being sweet and virginal—and Oklahoma! is undeservedly criticized for being too sentimental (it is serious and dark, not all sugary and light, though it is emphatically romantic)—her solo starts as an ode to the “healthy and strong woman”, in contrast to a shallow, hyper-feminine second-hander. Laurey sings her complicated profession and lament to a gathering of women in whom she finds support and discovers in herself the skill for leadership. It’s a bright, frilly, high-pitched scene and song immersed in femininity and femaleness but it is not frivolous. For example, a short-haired brunette who stands out for being too rambunctious as the ladies dress for the auction is also pointedly the first female to console Laurey when she’s hurt and it’s the brunette that steps up to remind Laurey of her inner strength.

Shared values aside, Laurey is no less liberated when she is alone, bathing naked in the outdoors with neither shame nor exhibitionism.

Even steady, salty old Aunt Eller is a modern, rational woman who both scorns tradition and speaks plainly about men, passion and sexuality. Freethinking in Oklahoma! leads to sensual, romantic love, territorial unity and free trade; a more perfect union. When Laurey and Curly go side by side, their chemistry is electric. A butterfly encircles the couple. Set during the Industrial Revolution, Zinnemann captures Americanism in their fresh faces: the innocence, confidence and intransigence. With birds, horses and cattle in almost every frame, and drifting clouds and rippling waves representing widening effects of what’s yet to come—amidst incisive and exceptional songs—Oklahoma! implies that sex and love are best aligned and in any case are a vital, natural part of forging a dynamic, new land.

MacRae’s strong and solitary Curly, from romancing Laurey on that first beautiful morning to bidding on her picnic basket against Jud Fry, symbolizes the West’s new, freethinking man. Curly is the first one to initiate a handshake after a plea for peace, trade and understanding between cowboys and farmers.

I noticed more realism mixed with romanticism this time, too. Oklahoma! could easily have ended after a happily ever after scene. Zinnemann, aided in tone by an extended foreshadowing dream sequence in a dance choreographed by Agnes De Mille, goes deeper, letting Aunt Eller deliver a stern if tender cautionary warning to Laurey that life means taking the good with the bad, rising above adversity and accentuating the best in life.

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No analysis of Oklahoma! would be whole without addressing its deft and delightful comic relief, Will (the perfectly cast and talented Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, acing the role) who bundle and bind the story’s themes into one immensely rewarding subplot involving Eddie Albert (Roman Holiday) as a foreigner. This pair cashes in on the Rodgers and Hammerstein humor after Will returns to Oklahoma from Kansas City to eventually corral Ado Annie, who keeps melting with men because she “cain’t” say no (except when Will goes to kiss her). Annie, daughter of a strict, dismissive farmer (James Whitmore), protests and explains, especially as her Will discovers pornography, ragtime and the “tellyphone” in a remarkable dance at the depot.

As with corn husker closeups, Zinnemann frames that scene and enhances it, symbolizing the Oklahoma territory’s change from old to new, as Aunt Eller’s horse-drawn carriage pulls up on the right of the screen as the camera pans to the left and a steam engine-powered train pulls into the station with a tail-wagging dog scampering to welcome the pioneer to the industrial revolution. The section finishes as Will casually hops onto his horse from the departing locomotive, retaining the cowboy’s way as the carousel of progress revolves.

This is Oklahoma! which brilliantly and musically, dramatically—with action-packed scenes, fabulous songs and great performances—renders the tale of a heroic individualist and the young, modern woman he loves, their chosen friends and fellow pioneers and the ties that bind in a rousing, and distinctly American, title song which could have gone on and on and on as far as I am concerned.

If you haven’t seen Oklahoma!, or if you haven’t seen it lately, this musical exists not to recall America’s past greatness as much as it does to showcase the boundless optimism that Americans once held as an ideal vision for the new country’s future.

 

Music Review: Rosanne Cash

Last night, I had the pleasure to meet Rosanne Cash backstage after her Santa Clarita, California, concert. She’s as earnest in person and in performance as she is on her recordings. The show was as unique an experience as I’ve had at a live concert.

I do favor singer/songwriters, such as Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger and Melissa Manchester, so I was looking forward to attending the Rosanne Cash concert, which started on time. Having fallen for her excellent 2014 The River and the Thread (especially the deluxe edition with “Biloxi”, which she did not perform), I expected a relaxed show and it was suitably subdued. Even better, Cash, whose memoirs I reviewed six years ago (read my book review here), is confident and authoritative on stage. Not once did she invite the audience to sing along, though a lady behind me insisted on singing along. Never did Cash encourage hand-clapping, not that it stopped fans from doing so to her rockabilly tunes.

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash, was active and happy to dance to the music, and she was in her own world as she sang songs she wrote and strummed a guitar beside her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. The Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center concert played as if Cash sang for herself.

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The result was a muted sense of detachment from the audience that enhanced the songs’ intimacy and impact. Remembering her life as a girl growing up in Ventura County, visiting the American South or the impetus or motive for each song, she performed a whole original album, her Grammy-winning The River and the Thread, in sequence. The voice is in fine shape and she phrases and times each vocal succinctly, letting the bluegrass/roots songs settle into a musical rhythm that frames more than overpowers the lyric.

“Ev’rybody ’round here moves too fast,” she observes on the wise “Modern Blue”, a song I requested in advance on Twitter (she replied: “you got it”). And everything she did with an accomplished, skilled band slowed the night down to near perfection. Cash took a break and returned with songs from her 2009 album, The List, and Black Cadillac and her many popular country and blues, folk and rock songs and chart hits, including “Seven Year Ache”, which set Cash on her way in 1981 to earning respect in popular American music. Cash’s husband/co-writer/producer and arranger John Leventhal did an impeccable guitar solo during “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.

After crooning “500 Miles” and other tunes, the Carnegie Hall creative partner and Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist-in-residence left the stage. Cash returned to acknowledge her suburban Los Angeles audience during a warm ovation as being “small but mighty”.

Rosanne Cash proved herself last night as a musical-philosophical storyteller in good form. The Tennessee native grumbled about an encore her husband nudged her to do, which worked out great. She talked about kids, her dad and tales of the Delta. But my favorite moment of candor was when she granted herself a triumph as she acknowledged, shared and celebrated that she’d recently recovered the copyright to a song she wrote as a young woman, “Blue Moon with Heartache”, which she then performed. Affirming her property rights was an unguarded and welcome admission which put the whole show in perspective; Rosanne Cash works hard to make it on her merits. The one-night return to her homeland Southern California gave fans a sense of Cash’s composed and honest pride.

Sample and buy The River and the Thread Deluxe edition.

Music Review: Pat Benatar at the Greek

Stepping on stage with the knowing confidence she has exuded throughout her career, Pat Benatar took to the Greek Theatre with ease. She opened with her hit song, “All Fired Up”. This anthem is the ideal initiation to her summer performance of rock, ballads and blues. The tune captures the essence of Benatar’s best work.

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Husband Neil Giraldo’s guitar roared before his wife let loose her vocal power in expressing the buoyantly, defiantly crying optimism which distinguishes this singer and her operatic rock band. Whether in the strong but tender “We Belong”, dramatic “Love is a Battlefield” or The Legend of Billie Jean‘s affirmation “Invincible”, each performed with precision last night at the Greek in her hometown Los Angeles, Benatar’s siren-like bellowing has aged with not a trace of cynicism. Each note, guitar solo and drumbeat fell neatly into each song with minor flaws, bringing her hard but positive catalog to life in the hills of Griffith Park.

Telling tales with humor, profanity and a grasp of what makes a good story, Giraldo and Benatar delivered with stage presence and musicianship every time. This isn’t a greatest hits collection, so they indulged in a selective set list after a nostalgic setup video. With “Hell is for Children” as an emotionally stirring transition point, they gave the enthused audience “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as well as a powerful version of “Promises in the Dark”, “Painted Desert” and a tribute to the late Prince with an acoustic rendition of his “When Doves Cry”. The energy was sustained, though Benatar seemed ready to call it a night when she did, too. Both artists, who were co-billed as Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo with Melissa Etheridge, have a naturally seasoned audience rapport.

That they acknowledge the warped, divisive times fits the tour’s love theme, with Benatar introducing the rollicking and underrated “Let’s Stay Together” off 1988’s brilliant and underrated Wide Awake in Dreamland with a statement dismissing political differences while pleading for unity. A hint of resignation and the sense that answers to deep, serious problems aren’t coming doesn’t mar the band’s underlying, almost prayerful idealism. It is tinged with the rage and anger at injustice that made Pat Benatar an early New Wave sensation in the late 1970s. No one can best this artist and duo for melodic rock that drives its theme that peace and love must be won, fought for and earned. The wink and the shrug with which Pat Benatar and her Neil Giraldo perform are optional.

These two ought to write and record more new music. Their rock concert is a rare and entertaining blend of the light and the serious.

Music Review: Melissa Etheridge at the Greek

Belting out her torchy 1990s hits and threading a story connecting her to hometown Los Angeles and its intimate Greek Theatre, where she preceded Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Melissa Etheridge displayed ability and an appreciation for the blues.

Teasing with a rousing cover tune of “Born Under a Bad Sign” from her forthcoming blues cover album of Stax Records songs, the best song performance of the night, singer-songwriter Etheridge impressed on a variety of skills. The raspy voice is deeper yet still strong and, without pandering to her gay female audience base, the outspoken political activism remains. Both are older and, yes, wiser and more restrained. This is the savvy artist who played on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News program, after all, and she says she still lives in the San Fernando Valley (and has an apartment in Manhattan with a view of the Freedom Tower), so she’s hardly the embodiment of left-wing intellectuals. As in the Brave and Crazy beginning of her career, Melissa Etheridge is an independent gay singer on her own.

While nodding to the times she hung out in Long Beach, a lesbian mecca like Minneapolis, Etheridge let her introspective songs of longing for sex, love and happiness—”Bring Me Some Water”, “If I Wanted To”, “I Want to Come Over”, “Angels Would Fall”, “I’m the Only One”, “Come to My Window”—speak for themselves. She tapped the early, granola-folk phase with her plaintive “No Souvenirs” and mastered every guitar she played throughout the night. But she also spoke of her struggling years in LA in chapters of coming to the Greek to see yoga-minded Sting, for whom she would open, and acts with gay male followings such as Liza Minnelli, who had invited the young Etheridge to attend her show, and Culture Club. She referred to the “glass ceiling” and hinted support for Hillary Clinton but she also derided people breaking off into “little groups” and called for Americans to come together.

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I’ve always liked Melissa Etheridge—I think Never Enough is a thoughtful album—for the same reasons I like Bob Seger; she’s a musical storyteller. I’ve bought her albums and I would have liked to have seen and heard her perform “Ain’t it Heavy”, “2001” “Christmas in America” and “The Letting Go”. Etheridge’s new song, “Pulse”, about the Orlando massacre of gay men by a Moslem terrorist is not her best. But it’s impossible to deny the cancer survivor’s talent and dedication to writing, playing guitar and singing about life here on earth. And, now, thanks to a terrific show last night at the Greek, I look forward to hearing her new Memphis-recorded blues album, too.

Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film print edition planned for future publication.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.